Enzo was having a ball in Puppy Kindergarten and doing a fine job with basic obedience. My next step had originally been to start tracking with him; however, February in New Hampshire doesn’t provide the optimal conditions in which to introduce a puppy to the sport. Was there something else? I went online to Fenzi Dog Sport Academy to peruse their courses…. Gun Dog Foundations?! The Spinone Italiano just happens to be classified as a versatile hunting dog! Do I hunt? No, why do you ask?
According to the syllabus, Enzo’s skill set after the 6-week course would include: a conditioned retrieve with delivery to hand, whistle stop, whistle sit, focus forward heeling, kennel up, place box steadiness, honoring, backing, whoa, default sits, and a left/right set-ups. Supplies needed: a placebox (what was that?), dumb bell (yup), balls (tons), stuffed toys (no problem), dokkens (googling that one), and an Acme 210.5 whistle. Yes, Acme. Remember that company from the Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons? Did it matter that I was clueless regarding many of the skills? No, because I was excited to explore the possibilities with my often comical, always eager, 4-footed partner.
Our instructor was Cassia Turcotte. She was an exceptional teacher- funny, kind, with a marvelous sense of humor and a warmth that radiated off the computer screen. She breeds stunning Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, and in one of my favorite, most inspiring video lectures, she’s training outdoors in pajama bottoms, muck boots, and a slicker in the drizzling rain, laughing as her puppy bumbles towards her, responding happily to the whistle. I adored this woman.
It was the first online course I had ever taken for dog training and I was impressed. I submitted two 1-minute videos each week of assigned homework which related to the highly informative (and equally entertaining) lectures. Cassia would view and comment. Even though I had access to the other students through an online discussion forum, Cassia encouraged us all to find a club where we might observe, train, and perhaps join… and that’s how Enzo and I wound up at a Hunt Clinic one weekend.
The venue was a huge horse farm. We have horses at the end of our road, so Enzo was not in the least put off by the gentle beasts who wandered over to check us out. As we made our way to the indoor riding ring, handsome sporting dogs were everywhere: Labrador Retrievers, German Shorthaired Pointers, Wirehaired Pointing Griffons, and several Munsterlander Pointers. They sat or stood quietly near their person, all of them wearing fluorescent orange e-collars. Their owners wore camouflage or orange vests with the control devices for the e-collars hanging from their necks, along with assorted duck calls and several whistles. As I scanned the huge sawdust covered arena, it appeared as though Enzo was the only dog wearing a harness. I was most definitely the only person wearing a treat pouch hooked to my belt. It was a fabulous treat pouch too–the fact that the rich plum color perfectly complimented Enzo’s dark purple harness was no accident. If that weren’t enough of a fashion statement, the (one) Acme whistle hanging around my neck was a lovely shade of violet. There was no camo or neon orange on either of us and I suddenly felt conspicuous and rather out of place. I looked over at my enthusiastic companion who was taking this all in and whispered, “I think we’re overdressed, let’s go home, okay?” As we turned to leave, a smiling woman strode up to us and said, “What a simply gorgeous Spinone!” I grinned. Enzo wiggled with delight and she said, “Come right this way- we’ll get you registered.”
I paid the fee, signed the release forms, and Joanna gave us a brief summary as to how the clinic worked. She was… intrigued? with Enzo’s harness. She bent over to inspect it, asking, “Doesn’t he have a choker? He can’t get out of this, can he?” ‘No,’ I answered, ‘This holds him securely without pressure to his throat or neck.’ She stood up. “Please, walk around, pick a station to work at, or just observe, feel free to ask questions as you go.” So Enzo and I walked the ring, stopping at different stations to watch as handlers worked their dogs. I wasn’t sure what was going on at the station where there looked to be something akin to an agility dog walk, so we hung out there and watched for awhile. I learned it was the “Whoa” station. I bent down to tell Enzo we weren’t there yet in his training with Cassia. He looked at me from under his bushy eyebrows while wiggling the entire back half of his body. I recognized the place box station so we stopped there to practice. In the midst of e-collars and choke collars, I calmly worked my harnessed dog, the clicker marking the behavior, the rewards of chopped chicken and verbal praise following. I sent him out to the small wooden platform as I walked away and returned. I was delighted and pleased with his earnest and joyful commitment to our ‘game’ in the midst of the bustling atmosphere of the clinic. We were both having fun.
“What a happy, sweet pup!” a male voice said. I grinned and nodded as an older gentleman, a grey muzzled companion calmly by his side, asked if he could say hello to Enzo. As Enzo danced and bowed –but never jumped– in greeting, the man continued, “Don’t see many Spinones around here, where’d he come from?” And we were off, discussing dogs, breeds, even training methods. It was a respectful conversation; he was genuinely interested in my use of the clicker and what Enzo had accomplished with this method. I was happy to show off what my puppy knew.
Enzo gained confidence, I gained courage. It was rewarding to learn something completely out of my comfort zone and feel successful while doing so. As a nod to my hunting friends, Enzo’s tracking harness and line are blaze orange… and you know my whistle matches.